Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this important debate on a motion raised by the member for Scarborough—Rouge River. I must admit, when the House has been seized with some matter that is of a complex nature, whether it be interpretation of the Standing Orders or our procedures and practices, the member has always been an active participant with sage words for the House's consideration.
I believe that the member has raised appropriately, based on the initial commentary of the Speaker with regard to his former question of privilege, the fact that there are other ways to do this. We have heard some suggestions. Why do we not send the matter to the procedure and House affairs committee where it could be taken care of?
The last time that committee took care of a conflict of interest issue of review, it created a subcommittee. It sent it to the subcommittee, I think it was in November 2006, and we did not get a report back until June 2007. I think that, under any criteria, urgent decisions by this place on a clear question should not take several months to address.
I have listened to the debate. I think that there has been ample discussion and presentation on the importance of free speech which is clearly the issue here. The crafters of the Constitution of Canada and our laws now in the Constitution have extended extraordinary privileges to members of Parliament. Those privileges, in brief, would include such things as the matter to speak freely in this place, to represent the interests of constituents without having fear of being taken to another jurisdiction and have it used against one in another jurisdiction or in a court of law, as one member said
The decision to grant the privileges to parliamentarians was carefully considered and carefully done in a way in which the public interest could be served only if members had that free speech, the right to speak freely, to speak frankly, to tell it like it is as it were, because it is important in this place that this is where the debate should take place. This is where one has to push the envelope, where we have to make very strict and firm arguments.
It may not be beautiful at all times, but it is our parliamentary practice and tradition. It is not a matter of trying to perform for some esoteric reason. It is to fight on behalf of what members believe to be the truth and fairness within the laws of Canada.
We have this extraordinary privilege and what we have before us now is a situation where an extraordinary matter, the privileges of parliamentarians, is being suspended by a very ordinary act. It is simply to launch a legal action. In this case before us, it is a libel suit.
The member for West Nova, in an interview outside of this place not covered by privilege, effectively indicated that a former prime minister accepted cash when he was prime minister. Mr. Mulroney contends that he received the money only as a member of Parliament after he had stepped down as prime minister. Consequently, he launched a $2 million lawsuit, the proceeds of which he indicated would go to charity.
That is all well and good, but during the hearings there was a lot of evidence and testimony that we had during the Mulroney-Schreiber hearings. It is not clear yet, and has not been established yet, whether or not the former prime minister actually had received money while he was prime minister or the promise of money.
He could have done certain things as prime minister with payment to be made only after he stepped down, but just as there is a contingent liability, if members would like to use that term, there also could be a contingent asset. It would be in order to circumvent the rules of this place, or in fact a statute of Canada, particularly the Parliament of Canada Act, which would deal with the issue of influence peddling.
Therefore, this is an extraordinary matter that is being undermined, mitigated and even shut out by an ordinary matter.
There has been some argument that we need this to happen. There has been some argument that we need to have this recusal of the member for West Nova to participate in debate or votes or questions, because, as one member put it, members could use this place to advance their case. They could use this place and abuse it to further their own private interests.
If members want to continue to argue their case and try to remedy their situation, they can do it outside of the Parliament of Canada, outside of this chamber or committee. They can do that. There is nothing to stop them. What could they do here that they cannot do out there?
We have the situation reversed. We have a situation where members can say things in the House that they cannot say out there, but in this particular case, we have a situation where the decision of the Ethics Commissioner is that members can say anything they want out there but we will not let them say it in here. It is exactly the reverse. This is preposterous.
The motion also, and I want to be clear on this point, refers to an exemption being proposed if a member is “a party to a legal action relating to actions of the Member as a Member of Parliament”. Some will interpret the words “legal action” as meaning a lawsuit, a court action, but there are many actions out there that involve a pecuniary interest to members. It could mean appearing before some tribunal or city council trying to get costs back or a reduction of property taxes or something like that where a member has argued. A judicial review could be a legal action in the context of what is being done here.
I raise this because in this place we deal with matters which touch on virtually the full gamut of issues that have touched the lives of Canadians. We will be there arguing on behalf of the interests of our constituents and of Canadians as a whole, but sometimes we will have to participate in fora outside this place.
If I can go to a tribunal, argue a case successfully and get a judgment or a decision that would affect the public interest, that is fine. However, what if I am seeking costs, the costs of my taking the time to do it, to get the research, to pay for the transcripts and to get legal assistance or other professional expertise? In themselves, those costs, and the recovery of those costs because I have successfully argued a matter that is not a private interest, represent a private interest, which I presumably would be advancing.
The point I am trying to make here is that if this matter is not changed, things can occur which would say that members who are involved in some sort of a legal action, legal proceeding or litigious proceeding may have to be in a position to recuse themselves from discussing it in the House because they are out there trying to do something to get back costs. That is not the intent.
I did what I could to determine whether or not there was any evidence of contingent liability being a subject of discussion by those who were responsible in the House to determine what the elements of our Conflict of Interest Code could be. I could not find any.
In my view, and I hope members will look at it carefully, there is no evidence that the existence of a contingent liability was ever contemplated. It could be something like a frivolous lawsuit, somebody paying the thousand dollars and filing the necessary papers, and then the parliamentary secretary would say that the member has to wait because it is in the courts and that is the way we do this. If one gets sued, then one is going to have to recuse oneself and lose one's privileges and rights under the Constitution until that court deals with it. How long is that going to be?
There is a saying about how justice delayed is justice denied. Privileges being denied because of a frivolous and vexatious suit is an inappropriate outcome.
I also want to make the point that in the Ethics Commissioner's decision, she decided that the member forWest Nova, who was the subject of a lawsuit by Mr. Mulroney, must recuse himself and could not participate in debate or vote, the reason being that we are talking about whether or not there is a pecuniary interest, a private interest. That could be assets or it could be liabilities.
If we look in a dictionary, we will see that liabilities have a whole range of definitions. One of them happens to be a contingent liability. We are not sure what it is, but it could happen. Other things have to happen in order for that to be assessed and the amount determined.
Did the crafters of our code of conduct decide that people could say that they thought someone was wrong so they would sue and find out in a couple of years from now whether or not the courts would agree, but that in the meantime before it gets to court they just might yank it and then the individual could go back? That is the problem.
There is a further problem if we have a situation like this one where other parties are related to Mr. Mulroney or where Mr. Mulroney is involved in any other business. If there is anything that we do or touch or say that would directly or indirectly affect Mr. Mulroney adversely, should the members also recuse themselves or be recused and lose their privileges in regard to discussing those things? The example I would give is the spectrum wireless issue and Quebecor and whether or not the members should recuse themselves from talking about Quebecor because Mr. Mulroney is an officer of a subsidiary of Quebecor.
There is another aspect that has not been considered. I raised it in one of the questions. If we are talking about just being sued, as is the case with the member for West Nova, and there is a recusal required, what happens if one applies the same logic that has been applied to the member for West Novawhen a member of Parliament himself or herself launches a lawsuit? If that member of Parliament launches a countersuit in the case of Mr. Mulroney, or a lawsuit on any other matter that is before the House, the interpretation given by the Ethics Commissioner's report demands that the member recuse himself or herself from participation in any vote, debate or questioning on any matter related to that.
Is it the intent of our code of conduct that a member cannot sue without giving up his or her privileges? It is the reverse situation, but we always have to look at what happens when we flip it on its head, start from the bottom up, or go in reverse or inside out. We have to look at all the angles.
One of the members says that we should just send it to the procedure and House affairs committee, which has a good track record. Let me give the House example of how ridiculous it could become if we apply the rules.
We have a situation now in which Elections Canada has named 17 members of Parliament in the Conservative caucus as participants in a scheme to circumvent the election spending rules as they relate to national advertising. They have been specifically named. In fact, there were 57 Conservative candidates. Of them, 17 were elected. They are all MPs, but of the 17, 10 are ministers or parliamentary secretaries and are also subject to an even more stringent code, that being the code for public office-holders, defined as cabinet members, parliamentary secretaries and governor in council appointees.
If we were to apply the decision and the logic of the decision of the Ethics Commissioner in this regard, we would have a situation involving: the member forKelowna—Lake Country, the member for Cariboo—Prince George, the member for Okanagan—Shuswap, the member for Sarnia—Lambton, the member for Louis-Hébert, the member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, the member for Lévis—Bellechasse, the parliamentary secretaries for heritage, national resources, the Prime Minister, and labour, the Minister of Public Safety, the Secretary of State and Chief Government Whip, the Minister of Transport, the former minister of foreign affairs, who has just been replaced, and the Secretary of State for Agriculture. All of those 17 members of Parliament, 10 of whom are public office-holders, should be recused from voting, debating or participating in any shape or form on any matter related to Elections Canada, because that matter is before the courts. The Conservative Party of Canada has taken the matter to the courts.
Elections Canada has made a finding. Not only has Elections Canada found that the Conservative Party of Canada violated the Canada Elections Act and overspent the advertising spending limit, but it has implicated and named specifically 17 members of Parliament. Those 17 members of Parliament filed election expenses returns after they became members of Parliament and those 10 became public office-holders. They filed returns. They and their chief financial officers swore and signed and said that the returns were fair and audited and everything was in good order.
Elections Canada said no to that. Elections Canada said that in its opinion that was not the case, that the returns were false and misleading. That is the allegation before these members. It would appear on a prima facie basis that the allegation, a contingent liability to either repay or to reduce the amount one is going to get back on an election rebate, is a pecuniary interest. It is not a contingent liability. It is a contingent reduction in an asset that members have determined is theirs. Elections Canada has said no.
It will now have to go to the courts, but until that is done, and it is going to take years, perhaps those 17 members of Parliament had better pay a visit to the Elections Commissioner and suggest that because they have this thing hanging over their heads they should not be participating and they should recuse themselves and not participate.
That is how ridiculous it gets. It is certainly not my suggestion or intention that this should ever happen, but if we want to apply the rules and the intent of the Conflict of Interest Code, we cannot do it on the narrowness of determining it in the worst possible case, a frivolous and vexatious libel suit. An ordinary action could be done by almost anybody on almost anything because it is their own opinion, not the opinion of the courts. Almost anybody could commence an action, in this case a legal action, and it would take away, in whole or in part, the privileges of a member of Parliament that have been granted to that member by our Constitution. That is how serious this is.
This has the potential to get much wider and to cover more subject matters and more integrated matters, because we know that things are inextricably linked. We know there are such matters. People have friends. If my friend is touched, I am being touched. Arguments could be made.
We need to protect the privileges of members of Parliament. That is what this is all about. This is not a partisan issue. It happens to be one member of Parliament who is caught in a situation. It is being used as a proxy for us to consider whether or not we are opening ourselves up to a situation that can get very, very nasty and could virtually grind this place to a halt.
That is why it has to be dealt with now. That is why I believe the motion, the debate and the argument brought forward by the member for Scarborough—Rouge River are cogent and wise and that this is the right thing to do. We should support this motion that is now before the House.